Surfing Magnetic Waves in the Solar Atmosphere
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Surfing Magnetic Waves in the Solar Atmosphere How the Solar Wind Gets Up to Speed
July 8, 1999:Â The high-speed portion of the solar wind achieves its unexpectedly high velocity -- up to 500 miles per second -- by "surfing" magnetic waves in the Sun's outer atmosphere, according to observations made by two spacecraft. For 37 years, solar scientists have been puzzled by the fact that the high-speed solar wind travels twice as fast as predicted by theory. Observations and theoretical analyses have discovered a surprising explanation for this mystery: magnetic waves.
Left: The SOHO Spacecraft.
Right: The Spartan Spacecraft flying free of the Shuttle bay.
The observations were made using instruments aboard NASA's Spartan 201 spacecraft, deployed from the Space Shuttle during the STS-95 mission, and the international Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). "The mystery was first presented by the Mariner 2 spacecraft in 1962, the same year as Glenn's first flight," said Dr. Marcia Neugebauer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, the co-principal investigator of the solar wind instrument on Mariner 2. "The new observations made by SOHO and by the Spartan 201 mission during Glenn's return to space put us much closer to finally unraveling the mystery of the acceleration of the solar wind."
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The outermost solar atmosphere, or corona, is an extremely tenuous, electrically charged gas that is seen from Earth only during a total eclipse of the Sun by the moon, when it appears as a shimmering white veil surrounding the black lunar disk. Using Spartan and SOHO, scientists have detected rapidly vibrating magnetic fields within the corona that form magnetic waves that appear to accelerate the solar wind. "These vibrating magnetic waves give solar wind particles a push, just like an ocean wave gives a surfer a ride," said Dr. John Kohl, a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA, and the principal investigator for ultraviolet spectrometers aboard SOHO and the Spartan 201.
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Above: This image shows three frames from a QuickTime animation (click the image to view) illustrating how magnetic waves in the Sun's outer atmosphere (corna) accelerate the solar wind. The corona is seen as a feathery yellow ring around the lunar disk during eclipse in the first image, the particles making up the solar wind (red and green) spiral around the magnetic field lines (white lines), accelerating away from the Sun. The spiraling solar wind particles take energy from the magnetic waves, canceling them out as the particles rush into space.
Even with this major discovery, there are questions left to answer. "The observations have made it abundantly clear that heavy particles like oxygen 'surf' on the waves, and there is also mounting evidence that waves are responsible for accelerating the hydrogen ions, the most common constituent of the solar wind," Cranmer said. "Other common particles, such as helium, have never been observed in the accelerating part of the corona, and new observations also are needed to refine our understanding of how the waves interact with the solar wind as a whole."
The SOHO mission is sponsored by NASA and the European Space Agency. This research was published in the June 20 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.
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